Friday, June 29, 2007

Warning: Tear-Jerker Zone

I have developed a bit of a reputation in my Children’s Literature classes. It is a reputation for crying. For the most part, my students are tolerant of this habit of mine, though they do occasionally burst out laughing when they see me starting to film up. Occasionally they drop by my office or leave notes on their exam papers reassuring me that they too were moved to tears by the books on the course.

My other literature classes do not seem to produce the same effect. While many of the poems and novels deal with death and suffering, they do so in a way that provokes anger or nausea rather than tears. Children’s novels, on the other hand, seem to specialize in a kind of lyrical sentiment that I am powerless to resist.

I am able to control my tears when I am talking about the books – but when I open them up to read key quotations, there are certain passages that never leave me dry-eyed. Here are some of them.

1. When I read this one aloud I can usually keep the tears from actually spilling over, but it always chokes me up:

He was a little boy, and she was grown up. She huddled by the fire not daring to move, helpless and guilty, a big woman.

"Hullo, Wendy," he said, not noticing any difference, for he was thinking chiefly of himself; and in the dim light her white dress might have been the nightgown in which he had seen her first.

"Hullo, Peter," she replied faintly, squeezing herself as small as possible. Something inside her was crying, "Woman, woman, let go of me."


2. Nostalgia for lost childhood is always good for a tear or two, even in the context of a happy ending like this one:

Afterwards, Aunt Gwen tried to describe to her husband that second parting between them. ‘He ran up to her, and they hugged each other as if they had known each other for years and years, instead of only having met for the first time this morning. There was something else, too, Alan, although I know you’ll say it sounds even more absurd … Of course, Mrs Bartholomew’s such a shrunken little old woman, she’s hardly bigger than Tom, anyway: but, you know, he put his arms right round her and he hugged her goodbye as if she were a little girl.’


3. Okay, those two were just a warm-up. Now I’m pulling out the big guns.

Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The field was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.


(I have to say, reading these aloud in class is bad, but writing them out is much worse.)

4. Now here’s the one that really wrecks me, every time:

"Oh, Anne, I know I’ve been kind of strict and harsh with you maybe – but you mustn’t think I didn’t love you as well as Matthew did, for all that. I want to tell you now when I can. It’s never been easy for me to say things out of my heart, but at times like this it’s easier. I love you as dear as if you were my own flesh and blood and you’ve been my joy and comfort ever since you came to Green Gables.

At this point, I usually fling the book and down and dismiss the class for a break to give me time to collect myself before we move on to our next topic (Mrs. Rachel Lynde – friend or foe?). What I cannot do at all is read the following quotation from the previous chapter:

"Well now, I’d rather have you than a dozen boys, Anne," said Matthew patting her hand. "Just mind you that – rather than a dozen boys. Well now, I guess it wasn’t a boy that took the Avery scholarship, was it? It was a girl – my girl – my girl that I’m proud of."


Okay, seriously - am I the only one crying here?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Church

It’s been all about God lately, around the blogosphere.

Jenn confesses her faith (though not without trepidation), Kristi asks about the relationship between religion and science, and Gwen explores the conflict between spiritual hunger and post-Christian trauma. (I just made that term up. It’s meant to describe the after-effects of being judged, harassed, rejected, and persecuted for not measuring up to other’s people’s standards of what it means to be a Christian. Any other ideas out there? Post-Christian stress disorder?)

What all three posts have in common is their resistance to the socio-political subculture of American evangelical Christianity, especially the secret-handshake portions of it where one’s spiritual condition can be (and is) summed up with a few diagnostic questions. Smoker? Not a Christian. Catholic? Going to hell. Can’t remember the exact date on which one was born again? Better say the sinner’s prayer again just to make sure.

Such quick-and-dirty spiritual diagnoses are a key element of twentieth-century evangelism (and I use that adjective advisedly – my sense is that in the twenty-first century, the church is moving away from some of the more problematic aspects of that model). Certainly one of the least savoury parts of my own upbringing was the constant pressure to "witness." Here’s what witnessing does not mean:

  • having a two-way conversation in which the saved person might actually learn something from the unsaved
  • following ordinary social cues that indicate the target’s level of comfort (witnessing is all about going beyond your comfort zone, even when your discomfort arises from your sympathy with the witness-ee’s evident desire to escape)
  • speaking honestly without formulas about your experience of God (who needs personal experience? – or, more to the point, who has personal experience at age ten? That’s what the Romans Road is for!)

If that’s what witnessing is not like, here’s what it is like: selling vacuum cleaners. You’d be a crappy vacuum-cleaner salesman if you went door to door talking about how wonderful the vacuum cleaner was, without ever actually making the sale. (This is an actual analogy I was presented with at the age of sixteen.) Numbers, people. It’s all about the numbers.

So there’s my little rant against the marketing-driven formulas that characterized Christian teaching in the church I grew up in. (I could also compose a little rant about anti-intellectualism, but Kristi’s post is pretty good for that already – go there and read hers.)

When posts of this nature come up, as they do periodically in the blogosphere, the comments usually offer two opposing responses:

1) I believe in God, but I haven’t much use for organized religion.
2) Hey, why don’t you try the Unitarian church?

This is the greatness of America – you can have the beliefs but not the church, OR you can have the church but not the beliefs.

Personally, option #1 has always been the door I’d be most likely to take if I wanted to leave the faith. As much as I have struggled at times with this or that tenet of my faith, in the end it’s really the people who make it hard to be a Christian. (Enfer c’est les autres …sometimes I think Jean-Paul Sartre must have attended a Baptist church.) Door #1 is also the option that has had more appeal in our culture as a whole: God-optional churches face rows of empty pews each Sunday morning, but 95% of Americans and 90% of Canadians still identify themselves as theists and consider themselves spiritual people. (I made those stats up just now, too. But I’m pretty sure they’re accurate.)

People are hell wherever you go, of course – but sometimes it seems as if being a Christian brings out the worst in people. So why do I keep going to church? (Aside from, you know, obeying God?) Here are my …

Top 10 Reasons for Being Glad I Go To Church

10) The food.
I’ve mentioned it before, those platters of roast chicken and green beans that were delivered to my door each night for a week after the Pie was born. Food is love, and nobody understands that better than a country church.

9) The diversity. Last Sunday I visited an enormous stadium-style church where the music team wore ripped jeans while they played "Wipe Out" (part of a surfing theme, the first in a series linking extreme sports to the Epistle of James). The service was slick and it was obviously enjoyed by the hundreds of suburbanites who attended. But it made me homesick a little for the tiny, now-defunct Anglican church I used to attend, and it made me appreciate its counterpart across the city, the Open Door fellowship which hosted the single-mothers’ workshop I participated in last year. Located next door to the city’s largest strip club, it has a very different mission from the mega-church. Both styles of service have a place, though, and I’m glad that Christianity is broad and deep enough to embrace them both.

8) "Holy, Holy, Holy." Though the darkness hide Thee / Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see / Only Thou art holy – / There is none beside Thee / Perfect in power, in love and purity.

7) The white-haired ladies. You know the ones I mean. They all sit together in a single pew, the widows with their roller-set curls and teal blouses, and you can never remember which one is Dorothy and which one is June. When I was ten, it was Mrs. McTavish giving out Halloween-size chocolate bars at the end of the service to anyone who could give her a short summary of the sermon. Two years ago, it was Evelyn Clark coming up to welcome the newborn Pie. "I gave up knitting years ago," she said in her quavery voice, "but yesterday I went out and bought a ball of wool to knit a sweater." Two weeks later she had to apologize – her arthritis wouldn’t let her finish the project. I told her it was okay, that the thought was enough – and it really was so much more than enough, that lovely thought.

6) Because I will one day be a white-haired lady. And I hope that there will be young people to pray for me when I go into hospital, to bring their babies to church so I can regret the fact I never learned to knit, to remember me after I’ve gone.

5) The nursery. An hour and a half of free day-care each Sunday morning. Need I say more?

4) The Sunday School. And the teacher who brings kittens for the two- and three-year-olds to play with, who sets up chairs on a sheet of blue fabric so they can pretend to be on Noah’s ark. These women have shown Bub how to sit in a chair, how to acknowledge his peers – they have challenged him and hugged him and he’s learned how to thrive in their presence.

3) The mix of age groups. At one time, I would have listed friendship as a major reason for going to church, but now it is not peers or social interaction I look for – instead it is the opportunity to interact with those older and younger, those on the other side of the mom-and-baby island I’m so often stranded on. That mix will be all the more important as my children get older, as I’ve learned in my small-group which includes a number of couples with teenage children. These parents worry about how strict to be about church attendance, how long to continue insisting that their children accompany them to church. And they are grateful for the role of other adults in mentoring their children – taking them to paint-ball, offering them summer jobs, setting an example of faith that isn’t contaminated by the tensions between well-meaning parents and adolescent children.

2) The sermons. "Are ye proud o’th’ gospel this mornin’?" the pastor demanded in his thick Scottish burr the first time I attended the church I now belong to. I was hooked immediately because of course I’m not, and I wish I could be.

1) Because my faith is weak. I doubt, I waver, I grow lukewarm. But once a week I am raised up by those around me. I come into God’s presence and worship, sensing not always but often that we awkward, blemished people are more than the sum of our parts: together, we are the Body of Christ on Earth. God help us all.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Incompetent

I took Bub to a speech-therapy evaluation yesterday. This was a follow-up to the four months of weekly therapy he received at the beginning of the year; the idea is to test him to see how he’s progressed and whether he qualifies for continued therapy this summer.

Luckily, Bub was in an enchanting mood. I explained that we were going to the building where we used to see Becky, but that today we would see Kim instead. After only a few token protests ("No Kim! How about Becky?"), he settled into the spirit of the adventure.

Kim had brought a Thomas the Tank Engine lift-the-flap book to entertain Bub between the rounds of testing. This was both a stroke of genius on her part and a sign of her profound misunderstanding of Bub’s nature (pardonable, since she had never met him before). Bub relaxed immediately and began chatting, correctly surmising that Percy was surprised – based on the round O-shape of his mouth – though unable to explain why until prompted by my observation that the train had crashed. Kim’s plan was to take this book away from Bub periodically in order to lead him through some exercises on picture-identification and listening skills.

(Pause here to imagine my maniacal laughter.)

Bub coped with this agenda far better than I would have predicted: when Kim explained that he could have the Thomas book back as soon as we finished her book, he flipped through the pages rapidly, identifying each pictured object without hesitation. The only real quirk here was that in addition to identifying the pictures, he also included the page numbers (found in the bottom corner in small print). "One apple! Two birds! Three trees! Four cats!" he exclaimed, until Kim helpfully covered the numbers with her hand. Bub hesitated only over pictures that were unfamiliar to him – a mermaid, a passenger train (that really didn’t look like a train at all) – turning to me to say, "I don’t know what that is, Mama!" When the page included several animals or items of clothing, he had no difficulty moving from object-labeling to category-labeling.

Not surprisingly, Bub achieved a score within normal range on this part of the test. His noun-vocabulary has always been good – he’s never had any difficulty with labeling things. The next test was harder: it involved listening to Kim’s instructions and following them. "Can you point to the dog?" she asked, showing him a page with four animals on it.

"No," said Bub, adding, "How about point to the cat?" (A training course hubby and I took on language development instructed us always to follow the child’s lead, using as a somewhat clumsy mnemonic this mantra: "Children who lead get the words they need; a child who is led gets somebody else’s agenda instead." Bub, I feel, has taken those words perhaps too much to heart. He’s never been a fan of getting somebody else’s agenda instead.)

Despite this inauspicious beginning, after one of two tries Bub settled down to the task, following both one-step and two-step instructions successfully. About four or five pages into the booklet, he came to a picture of a tree with one bird sitting on the branches and three birds fluttering around it. "Bub, can you point to the bird who is not flying?" Kim prompted.

Doubt fell across his face like a curtain. He hesitated, lifted a finger, hesitated again. Finally, he pointed to one of the flying birds and said, "That one is flying."

"Yes it is!" Kim said encouragingly. "Now can you point to a bird who is NOT flying?"

Bub’s eyes flickered back and forth from the page to Kim’s face, his uncertainty palpable. Finally Kim relented and showed him: "This bird is flying, and this bird is flying, but this bird is not flying!"

The next page featured four zoo animals in their pens. "Can you point to the elephant first, and then…" Kim began. Bub eagerly pointed to the elephant and Kim gently moved his hand away. "Listen," she said kindly, "First point to the elephant and then to the giraffe!"

There was a slight pause – and then the tears cascaded down Bub’s cheeks like bubbles from a lava lamp. It was as if he was converting from a solid to a liquid state, in a sudden outpouring of pure sadness. He wailed for a minute or two before accepting a hug and demanding a kleenex, overcome with a sense of his own incompetence. He was not angry or frustrated, just stricken by the sudden reversal of fortunes – his joyful recognition of the elephant, his belief that despite his lapse with the flying-and-not-flying birds he could at least get this one right – all of it served to intensify the crash into failure.

I’ve seen it in him before, this sheer despair at doing something the wrong way, at not getting the right answer. Even as a toddler he could be reduced to tears by a single instruction of "No!" – especially when he thought he was doing something right: opening the garbage can, starting the dishwasher. It took awhile before he learned the difference between failure and mere misbehaviour – his tears arose from a sense of incompetence, not from the belief that he had displeased me.

Simple ignorance he can handle – when he didn’t recognize the mermaid in the first exercise, he had no difficulty asking me what it was. He does not (yet) expect himself to know everything. But when he thinks he knows something – when he has already begun that internal celebration of his own competence, of his own sure-footed knowledge – the discovery that he is mistaken can be devastating.

Within minutes Bub was sunshiny again, the brief storm passing as quickly as it had started. But I left the session feeling as if he had punched a little hole in my heart. How do I show him that it’s okay to make mistakes, that he is still smart and strong and lovable even when he gets the answer wrong? And I wonder – is this even a lesson I’ve learned myself, so that I can impart it to him, a little boy who is all too easily made ashamed by his flawed, human self?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Mid-Year Book Report

It’s been awhile since I updated you on the outcome of my Which Book Would You Pick? poll. Among decided voters, Momzillas came in dead last, so being the ornery person I am, I read it first, a chapter or two each night before bed.

Mostly this book annoyed me. (See? I should have listened to you guys. The Hopeless Romantic’s Handbook was way better. A total rip-off of When Harry Met Sally, of course, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.)

Mom-lit is all about voice, I’ve been told, and in the case of Momzillas I found myself constantly disconcerted by the conflict between Hannah’s voice and her behaviour. The narrative is larded with trendy abbreviations, Hannah’s pol being never to use more than one syll per word. On the upside, I finally figured out (I think) what the word "natch" means. On the downside, I found myself more distracted than amused by these strained attempts at hipness.

Despite her trendy vocabulary, Hannah is anything but hip. She is a fish out of water in New York City, bringing with her all the eager innocence of the Left Coast. (Are people from San Francisco really known for being so natural and unaffected?) There is something weirdly infantile about her relationship with her husband, whom she refers to as "Joshie" and who comforts her for his long work-related absences by patting her on the head while she pouts. Hannah cries a lot and tries hard to be accepted by mean-spirited competimommies even as she unleashes f-word-laden rants against them that don’t really seem to match her eagerly conformist behaviour. It felt as if a biting satirist was playing ventriloquist with a doe-eyed puppet whose main quality is bland niceness. Hannah blames herself for various things that aren’t her fault, and that’s how we know she’s a good person.

So yeah. That’s about all I have to say about that.

 
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In other book news, I’ve been keeping track of the books I’ve read this year, starting at Christmas rather than New Year’s in order to get credit for all my holiday reading. I’m of two minds about this practice. It’s the first year I’ve tried it, and while I certainly enjoy the satisfaction of typing in each completed title, I wonder if the numbers game is interfering with my enjoyment of reading, especially as I near the end of a book and start skimming along, eager to add another notch to my bedpost. The best part of it, I think, is the opportunity for statistical analysis:

Six month total: 25, including…
…5 re-read children’s books (the Alice books, The Sword in the Stone, The Secret Garden, Daddy-Long-Legs and The Long Winter)
…5 books about autism (4 new, all more or less autobiographical, plus The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time)
…6 review books
…4 additional non-fiction (Not Buying It, Stumbling on Happiness, The World According to Mimi Smartypants, and Finally Feminist)
…5 additional novels (The Time-Traveller’s Wife, The Historian, John Fowles’s The Collector, Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down, and a Betsy-Tacy book about high school, which has since been returned to the library – I can’t remember the title)
Sub-total of books mentioned previously on my blog = 14
Sub-total of books recommended by other bloggers = 6
Books unrelated to either school or blogging = 4
Books bought with my own money = 6 (or 4, if you don't count birthday and Mother's Day gifts from hubby, including the one I went out and bought for myself on Mother's Day)

I’m hoping to step things up over the next two months, when I exchange my professor hat for SAHMdom. Beyond the Blue is still in the queue, along with a stack of blogger-reco’s including Saffy’s Angel (children’s book with colour-themed names), Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome, and Ian McEwen’s On Chesil Beach. And then, of course, I’m gleefully rubbing my hands together over a certain book which comes out near the end of July…

Stay-at-home moms have lots of time to read, right? Right?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Shy Kids

We had company for supper Friday night, a rarity at our house (I wasn’t kidding when I said I lacked the gift of hospitality). Pie and Bub weren’t sure what to make of it, this appearance of a very tall dark-haired man and his petite fiancee at our dinner table. Pie wore her shyness with a kind of casual grace. At first she seemed merely to be glancing out the window, until I noticed that her head was fixed in a left-facing position, chin poised above her shoulder. Two pieces of pizza disappeared down the hatch, but she kept her gaze averted, never offering more than an occasional flirtatious glance towards the rest of us gathered around the table.

Bub, meanwhile, seemed chatty and comfortable – right up until the point when he got up from the table and tripped in mid-caper, falling clumsily to the ground. "Don’t worry!" he announced. "I’m not hurt!"

"You meant to do that, didn’t you?" hubby prompted, sensing a certain degree of embarrassment.

Bub didn’t move. "It’s okay," he reported, still not moving. "I’m all right." He held the pose for a minute or two longer, continuing to confirm the total absence of pain, before he collected himself enough to clamber up again.

***

When supper was done, I tucked him into bed and climbed in so we could say our prayers together. I went through the usual litany of thanking God for the day and asking His blessing on friends and family. Then it was Bub’s turn.

"Great God and giver of all good," he began, and then paused for thought. "God bless the DVDs," he concluded. "Amen."

***

I have a handful of short video clips taken on my digital camera. They are more audio clips than anything else – unless the lighting is very strong, little can be seen but shadows. My sister, on the other hand, has a more up-to-date model and loves to film her niece and nephew every time we visit, so this week she put together a year’s worth of videos and burned them to a disc for me. Here’s one of the highlights:

Friday, June 22, 2007

Like/Don't Like

I like it when all the books in the Random Books From My Library share a common colour scheme, especially if that scheme is brown and red (matching the rest of my blog). This happens far more often than seems statistically probable – and I’m considering adding only red and brown books in future (with the occasional splash of yellow).

I don’t like it when the number of comments on a recent post is 13, or any number ending in –9. (For the love of Pete, somebody please say something and make it a nice round multiple of 10!)

I like it when new commenters who have blogs either leave a link or (a) enable access to their Blogger profile and (b) have a link to their blog on it so I can click over and read my way through their home page.

I don’t like it when I visit a new blog and find that the home page either (a) contains only one or two posts, or (b) contains brief snippets of each post, forcing me to click individually if I want to read more. (And Trudy, I’m not talking about you, because I already know you well enough to click on each post – but if I didn’t know you already, the "Read More" links would be enough to send me packing. Word to the wise.)

I like memes. Their intrinsic interest varies, of course, but I like watching them explode, meander, or mosey their way around the blogosphere – especially when I manage to get in on the ground floor, as I did when Veronica Mitchell created that Best TV Characters Ever meme last fall.

I don’t like these new carnivals where everybody posts about their skirt or their school cafeteria or their love of danger in support of a book or website. For one thing, I never find out about them until they’re already over, and for another thing, I don’t really get why we’re supposed to be doing it. To win a prize? To get more traffic? Out of the goodness of our hearts?

I like my Google Reader Shared Items (see sidebar). There’s a high turnover on it, because every time I find a post that makes go tingly all over, I just click "Share" and then gaze at it fondly for the rest of the day, clicking over from time to time to stroke it gently and say "Hello, my pretty!"

I still like Bloglines too, though. And my blogroll. So Google Reader is more of an addition to my bloggy lifestyle than a substitution.

I like getting comments.

I don’t like it when my favourite bloggers go on hiatus because they’re overwhelmed by the pressure to comment. So here’s what I say. Come by, say hi. But don’t stress if you go a week or two between comments – and put your own writing first.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Extravert Friend

All my life I’ve relied upon the kindness of extraverts.

In every social group I’ve been a part of there has been an undeniable center, the person everyone else thinks of as her best friend. In college it was Hilary. Hers was the smallest room in our student-ghetto house, but she rarely studied there alone. Located at the top of the stairs, it was invariably occupied by figures sprawled across beds, munching the inevitable chips and salsa while we talked about boys and dissipated all the pent-up silliness that accumulates during a day of studious endeavours. After graduation, Hilary served as bridesmaid in all our weddings, the token representative of the university years.

In my mid-twenties, the social convenor was Sheila. She functioned as the emotional center of a group my other friends referred to as "the dancing Baptists." All in various stages of singleness, we drank coffee, sang karaoke, and went to the beach, sorting ourselves gradually into increasingly stable twosomes. Sheila served as bridesmaid in all our weddings, and today her house is a common gathering place – the kind of house that has lots of toys for the kids, lots of room in the back yard for a barbecue, and a big kitchen table where the women can play Canasta while the boys duel one another at X-Box in the basement.

At no time in my life have I been the center of my social group. I lack the essential virtues: hospitality, comfy couches, a willingness to pick up the phone and organize get-togethers. I have plenty of friends, but these friends do not cohere around me. I do not possess the kind of gravitational force that organizes people into happily spinning orbits, circling one another in a friendly way but always depending on me to keep them connected. I am not that kind of person, but I have always been aware – sometimes acutely – of how much I need such people, how fully I depend upon their light and warmth.

The extravert friend is not without her flaws, of course. She can be flighty, unreliable – or she can be a guilt-tripper, the friend who periodically realizes how unbalanced the relationship has become and issues ultimatums. Dependence upon the extravert friend can be dangerous because when she moves on, she may take her posse with her. Even so, I think of my extravert friends with gratitude, thankful for their open doors, their friendly phone calls, the generous goodwill with which they hold all the rest of us introverts together and keep us from spinning alone into the coldness of space.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

House Proud

Here’s a picture of my house:


Oh, no wait – sorry, this is actually my house:


Okay, neither of those is my house. To imagine my house, you need to take the first one and shrink it down. Then divide it into two semi-detached units, and smudge up the exterior a bit so that it looks like maybe it could do with a good coat of paint. Pull up all the flowers and shrubs and replace them with three-foot high weeds and an assortment of dandelion heads and clover. For the finishing touch, add several broken plastic yard toys strewn haphazardly about the yard. There you go – that’s what my house looks like.

The inside isn’t so bad – it receives its fair share of attention. I’ve been known to clean the floors, even to put pictures on the walls. The interior of my home has a college-dorm-meets-hand-me-down look, but it’s cozy, cared-for. The exterior, on the other hand, has a listless air, everything slightly down-at-heel.

I’m not the homeowner I dreamed I would be when I was young. I spent hours planning my house of dreams, lining its walls with built-in bookshelves, draping the furniture in floral chintzes. I subscribed to Victoria magazine and planned my attics and larders accordingly.

I see that dream house of mine sometimes, especially in the old Victorian homes downtown. These are houses that are glimpsed rather than seen. From the road, you can see sun-mellowed bricks and stone archways, red geraniums nodding brightly in pots. Trees frame the driveway with their arching branches, hinting at a kind of stately privacy, a shaded grandeur. The back yards are glimpsed through wrought-iron fences, sloping dramatically down to the river, a riot of daffodils and wildflowers with shady brick paths leading to forest-green benches. I always feel a nudge of homesickness at the sight of these homes, a feeling of a life only narrowly missed.

The thing is, it’s a lot more fun to imagine a house than to actually care for one. In my imagination, I’m a sensitive and tasteful gardener, nurturing beds of peonies and climbing rosebushes. The home of my imagination is nestled in a cozy neighbourhood, but when you sit on the back porch you might be alone with the birdsong and lapping stream, enclosed in a garden that combines nature and artistry in perfect harmony.

This imaginary home would cost a lot of money, I suspect, should it ever come on the market. But the financial barrier is far more superable than the barrier of habit. For most people, I’ve observed, the care and upkeep of a home is time-consuming. My neighbours spend hours building sheds, remodeling kitchens, planting tomatoes. I admire their diligence from my kitchen table, where I sit tapping away at my keyboard while they trim hedges and arrange lawn ornaments. At the end of the day, though, I would rather read blogs than pull weeds; I would rather create documents than gardens.

Of course, if money were no object I could hire a gardener, an interior decorator. But my house of dreams is not the product of wealth; it is the visible manifestation of my taste, my creativity. It is myself writ large – and it looks nothing like the garage-heavy suburbs or messy yards in which real life, sadly, is lived.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Hot/Cold

  • Warm brownie with ice cream. And hot fudge sauce.


  • Wading to the shoreline on the way in from a good dunking in the lake.
  • Peeing after a long swim.
  • Glass of milk after an ice-cream cone.
  • Campfire on an early summer night, when you’re sitting close enough to roast marshmallows with a blanket over your shoulders.


  • The first blast of air conditioning in a car that’s been parked in an unshaded lot.
  • Toes making contact with toasty-warm legs under a down duvet.
  • Popsicles dripping on bare legs.


  • Saying goodnight at the doorway in late March, two people in one jacket.
  • Running through the sprinkler.
  • Rhubarb pie, fresh from the oven, with crumble topping and vanilla ice cream.
  • Feverish forehead lolling on your shoulder on a winter’s night.
  • Stepping out of a Las Vegas hotel, where air conditioning and desert meet.


  • Wrapping stiffened fingers around a mug of scalding cocoa after an afternoon of tobogganing.
  • Local anaesthetic that’s just starting to wear off after a dental procedure.
  • Freshly laundered cotton sheets pulled tightly across the bed, covers thrown off except for one cotton topsheet, ceiling fan whirring overhead.

Any more?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Who's the Smartest?

Me: True or false: Males are better at math than females.

Hub: 100% completely true.

(stunned silence)

Me: What exactly are you basing that on?

Hub: Experience. Whenever I’ve attended an awards ceremony, the math awards have always been won by males. Every time.

(uncomfortable silence – my usual "but I’m awesome at math!" argument has been preemptively derailed here: although my high-school math grades were excellent, I never won any actual awards for them)

Me: Well, yeah – Asian males maybe. They always won the awards at my high school. But I beat all the white boys.

Hub: You wouldn’t have beaten me.

Me: I would too!

Hub: I’m afraid not. I’m willing to concede you would’ve had me in English, but I had a final mark of 100% in Calculus, and that was without any bonus marks.

Me: (saying nothing, but thinking uncomfortably of my lowly 94% in grade 13 Calculus) Oh yeah? Well, I had the highest marks in the whole city when I graduated from high school!

Hub: (snort of contempt) What high school did you go to again? Oh, yeah – Comprehensive Tech. I went to an academic school.

Me: Whatever. I still would have beaten you in English, French, Chemistry, and History.

Hub: Well I would’ve taken you in Math, Music, and Geography.

Me: I didn’t take Music or Geography.

Hub: Well I didn’t take History or French.

Me: I still beat you two courses to one.

Hub: But Math counts for three courses: Calculus, Finite, and Algebra & Geometry.

Me: So does English.

Hub: (incredulously) You took three grade 13 English courses? What a waste of time.

Me: (stuck for a comeback, so conceding the field with furious glares)

*****

Congratulations to hubby, who was called to the bar yesterday by the Law Society of Upper Canada. For today, at least, I’ll concede that you’re the smartest.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Show-Off

My Children’s Literature students are in the midst of essay-writing this week, visiting my office each day with thesis statements and outlines. They are well-schooled, this group, in the lit-crit trick of arguing the opposite of what they really believe: many of them are developing cogent arguments about the uselessness of classroom education. (I’m trying not to take it personally.)

"Formal education," one student wrote, "encourages children to do little more than show off their acquired knowledge." She plans to support this thesis with reference to Alice in Wonderland, who hurtles down the rabbit hole muttering to herself about Latitudes and Longitudes, not because she understands these concepts or finds them useful, but solely from a desire to display her impressive vocabulary. The students at Hogwarts are just as bad, pitted against one another as they are by the House Cup competition, which encourages them to repeat memorized answers but does little to encourage collaborative problem-solving.

Showing off is not merely a symptom of the failure of formal education in these books; it is also a causative factor. In order to learn something, we have to stop showing off long enough to actually listen to another person.

That could be a problem for Bub when he starts junior kindergarten this fall. I took him to an open house yesterday, picking him up from day-care just as the other children were going down for their naps. "We’re not sleeping!" he exclaimed ecstatically as we drove along. "We’re going to the school! We’re almost there!" He repeated this mantra throughout our visit, impervious to my attempts to persuade him that we were already at the school, that this was the school.

Impervious was the very word for him. The thing about kindergarten classrooms is that they are simply bursting with numbers and letters (two of Bub’s favourite things – all he needed was a Thomas train table and a few lead-contaminated toys and he would have been in perfect bliss). "There are numbers on the apples, Mama!" he shouted excitedly. "Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten!" Words bubbled from his lips, all punctuated by exclamation points and delivered at high volume. "It’s an ostrich! It’s a puzzle! It’s spelling!" he exulted.

His running monologue was no two-way street. Any attempt to direct his attention was promptly brushed aside, as were the friendly advances of the kindergarten teachers. One clever teacher tried to engage his attention by appealing to his evident interest in numbers. She saw him looking at a photo of an ostrich, so she got down to his level, addressed him by name and said, "How many baby ostriches are there?"

No response. It wasn’t merely that Bub refused to answer her question – he refused to acknowledge it in any way. No turn of the head, no shadow of pause or hesitation.

It didn’t look like shyness, this determination to ignore her friendly overtures. I’ve seen him shy before, a nervous smile playing on his lips, his eyes averted except for an occasional quick, darting glance. No, this looked an awful lot more like not caring. "I am indifferent to your silly ostriches," he seemed to be saying. "Do you not see that I am examining the coloured markers?"

He did make eye contact with a teacher on one occasion: he had found a numbers puzzle and was barking out the numbers, checking the teacher’s face each time to make sure she was paying attention. Bub’s showing off usually seems to be an internal affair – he displays his knowledge for his own satisfaction rather than to gain attention from others. An appreciative audience never goes amiss, however, and he was willing enough to cast the teacher in that role. His communication has increased exponentially over the last few months, but it is still mostly outward-bound: he is reluctant to accept input of any kind, whether it be instructions, suggestions, or playful repartee.

I’ve been doing an Ages & Stages questionnaire with him this week, part of a research project I’ve participated in since before Bub was born. I’m meant to do a series of activities with him this time, checking off the tasks he is able to perform successfully. This requires no small amount of ingenuity on my part, as Bub flatly refuses to participate. He’s not as clever as he thinks he is, though. Take for example the test for word recognition. "What does that say?" I ask, handing him a piece of paper on which I’ve printed the word "dog."

"No!" he protests, scribbling it out violently with a blue crayon. "No dog!" (Check.)

I move on to number sequencing. "Can you say 7-2-5?"

"No say 7-2-5!" Bub shouts. (Checkity-check.)

He’s developing by leaps and bounds, that boy, and fighting tooth and nail against every bit of incoming knowledge. Like Alice or Hermione, he would always rather show off what he already knows than learn something new – he would always rather speak than listen. It’s not difficult to imagine him taking after his namesake from The Secret Garden, giving makeshift lectures about his "scientific discoveries" while the other children sit quietly on the grass. (The great thing about lecturing, says old Ben Weatherstaff, "is that a chap get up an’ say aught he pleases an’ no other chap can answer him back.")

So I sat down with one of the teachers, explaining that Bub is a November baby and young for his age, asking how essential it was for him to be able to do everything on the checklist they’d provided (print his name, take care of his toileting needs without prompting, put on and remove all outerwear, etc.). And while I did that, Bub threw in his own remarks, counting to twenty, pointing at the word "circle" and reading it aloud, until the teacher gave me a look and sent us on our way.

"We’re going to the school!" Bub said as we left the building. "We’re almost there!"

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A Protective Mother's Manifesto

My children are terrible back-seat drivers.

"Care-fu-wee!" Pie will call out as the car rumbles over a set of train tracks. I wonder whether she envisions the car losing its footing on such treacherous ground, all of us holding on for dear life as it stumbles down and skins its knee.

"That was a close one!" Bub exclaims every time I turn left in the path of an oncoming car.

I always feel a little thrill of pride when he says it.

My children are no daredevils. They’re the ones who sit at the top of the slide, contemplating the downward slope in their still, unhurried way while the line-up of impatient bystanders squirms in frustration behind them. Neither has ever climbed out of a crib or defeated a child-safety mechanism. Though prone to running away on the beach or at the mall, they are both cautious in the face of physical dangers – a trait I’ve always met with gratitude and recognition.

Before now-husband and I began dating, during that prolonged courtship of being "just friends," we once went tubing with a group of friends. Not white-water tubing, but the snowy kind – we climbed up the hill and piled into a big rubber inner tube, large enough to hold three or four adults at a time, then spun down the hill shrieking like six-year-olds, mittened fingers clinging to the hand-holds. As we lined up for hot chocolate, he turned to me in his shy, off-hand way and said, "I’ve been trying to figure you out. Do you think of yourself as an adventurous person?"

I pretended to consider this for a moment. The honest reply – "I’m probably the least adventurous person you’ve ever met" – was clearly out of the question. "I’m emotionally adventurous," I said at last. "I seem to lack ordinary caution when it comes to emotional risk-taking."

That is true as far as it goes – but it was also a convenient way not to talk about how I took diving lessons in grade six, stepping up to the board every morning, envisioning myself doing a perfect tuck or jack-knife, only to repeat the same clumsy manoeuvre time after time – a kind of modified front dive, with no upward movement – basically, I fell into the water headfirst, as carefully as possible.

Physical courage is not my strong suit. I sometimes liken falling in love to diving off a cliff – I adore the sheer free-fall of it – but when it comes to literal cliffs and literal dives, I’m more comfortable with my feet planted on terra firma.

Mad’s recent post on courage, adrenaline, and adventure has got me thinking about how my own aversion to risk-taking has affected my parenting. I am, as Mrs. Chicky puts it, a "helicopter mother." At the playground, while the other parents are chatting on park benches, barely glancing up as their three-year-olds swing from the monkey bars, I’m the one clambering up plastic rock-walls in pursuit of my errant children, guarding them from all the sheer drops that have always made playgrounds seem like giant death traps to me. At the beach, while the other parents are sunning themselves on beach towels, I’m the one splashing around in my maternity bathing-suit like some ungainly whale, always within arm’s reach of my children, always seeing a potential undertow in the gentle waves lapping at the shore.

My children have lived their lives accompanied by a constant chorus of "Be careful!" "Hang on!" and "Stay on the sidewalk!" When I read posts about parenting fearlessly, or encouraging fearlessness in our children, my first reaction is always a blank stare. Fearlessness is just not on my radar. I parent with Gandalf constantly looking over my shoulder whispering urgently, "Keep it safe!"

I feel surprisingly little guilt about this. I’m not afraid to be the smothering mother renowned in children’s fiction. In children's adventure stories, parents are supposed to be the blocking figures. Like Peter Rabbit’s mother, they fasten their squirming children into confining jackets and administer prohibitions. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t leave the path. Don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden.


But for all that, mothers are an essential part of the adventure. If Mrs. Rabbit didn’t fasten Peter’s jacket just a little bit too tight, what motivation would he have to cast it off? And if she were not there to tuck him into bed at the end of the day with camomile tea, how would Peter muster the courage to face the dangers of the forbidden vegetable patch?

I’m not a mother bird, ready to push my children out of the nest. I hedge them round with rules and warnings, knowing that someday they may choose to defy them. And if (when?) they do, I’ll be waiting for them to come back, bedraggled and jacket-less, with a dose of tea and a warm bed waiting. Like Mrs. Rabbit, though, I’ll save some blackberries and milk for the good little bunnies who find adventure enough within the confines of the ordinary, who dwell, like me, in the complexities of the village rather than the simple oppositions of the wilderness.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Old Apartment

Broke into the old apartment
This is where we used to live…

The Barenaked Ladies

I don’t know how other people’s marriages end. There is the myth that people get divorced on a whim because they’re bored, because they’re selfish… I’ve never met anybody like that, though boredom and selfishness may contribute to all the actions and inactions that culminate one day in a moving truck loaded with exactly half of the still-unused wedding gifts: the china plates detached from the crystal goblets; the VCR unhooked from the TV.

When I left then-husband on a sunny day, almost as bright and clear as today, the most striking element was the utter surprise of it. I was unhappy, but in a stable, prosaic kind of way. I was used to my pedestrian unhappiness and only a few hours earlier my entire concept of the future had been invested in that ordinary, imperfect marriage of mine. Then the tectonic plates of my life shifted, and I went home to my mommy, who made me applesauce and vanilla pudding and fed me on mashed potatoes until I was able to chew solid food again.

Do you remember the show Sliders? It was about a boy who was searching for his home, sifting through parallel realities trying to get back to where he began. That was my life for the next three months. I went to school, taught my tutorials, and went out with friends, but all along part of me was crouched on the balcony of my old apartment, peering in at the life that had somehow failed to materialize – the self that no longer lived there, the marriage that no longer existed. This sense of unreality was neither happy nor sad: it was not a feeling of regret or longing, but neither was it a feeling of relief. I felt all those things at other times, but when I pictured my old life – the one I had planned, the one that had evaporated so utterly without warning – what I felt most of all was surprise. I imagine it must feel similar to lose a limb.

I can see the appeal of multiple universes, the idea that each choice we make spawns a parallel universe. There is a world in which I got that job in Ottawa, a world in which I went to England for graduate school – a world, even, in which I’m still married to my ex-husband. It would be fun to go on a sci-fi field trip to that world, to watch myself struggling to raise children with a husband who contributes nothing beyond his complaints about the absence of peak experiences in his life. Perhaps in heaven we can simply pick which set of choices we prefer and live a life crafted from hindsight.

It’s kind of like the appeal of the block universe: the idea that the world exists in four dimensions, including all that was and all that will be. "Now" is simply a matter of perspective, referring to what I perceive through the electric pulse of my consciousness as it flickers along its linear path. The past, according to this view, still exists in its entirety and someday perhaps I’ll be able to go back and watch myself smashing a plate and driving down that tear-blurred highway. The vagaries of memory will give way to perfect knowledge.

But the price of the block universe is a high one. I’m not willing to become a determinist – my nostalgia is not quite strong enough to outweigh my desire for a future that is open, a shimmering sea of possibilities not yet realized. But if the future were like a mortgage, I wonder if I would be willing to risk the variable rate. Would I not prefer the security of a fixed-rate mortgage, with its assurance of modest returns, its protection from catastrophe? If I could wrest from the block universe a promise that no disaster would come to snatch my children from me, wouldn’t I bargain away my free will in a second for the sake of that guarantee?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Secret Recipe

A friend of mine had a baby last week, so I’ll be popping by today armed with my signature snack-food: Delight Squares. I will admit that it is with hesitation that I post the recipe here. I’ve been making these squares since I was in high school – they went with me on trips to Florida with my best friend, and they have been my contribution to many a bridal shower and new mother since then. Others have tried to prepare them – and failed.

You may glance at the recipe and say to yourself, "Oh, I’ve had those before." You haven’t. My mother perfected the recipe and then handed it down to me. What you have had is an inferior, pre-perfection substitute. Here, then, is the true method of preparing Delight Squares.


Ingredients
2 Aero bars (If you’re American, you may need to substitute two regular-size milk chocolate bars – but you’ll miss the delicious sensation of watching the bubbles melt in the pan.)
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup corn syrup
1 tsp. vanilla
3/4 cup crunchy peanut butter
4 cups Special K (Do you Americans have Special K? If not, just give up – Rice Krispies would not achieve the same effect. Perhaps this recipe is meant for Canadians only.)

Directions
1. Break Aero bars into pieces in a heavy frying pan (double boilers are for wimps), keeping back one row from each bar for munching.
2. Add chocolate chips and put on very low heat.
3. Bring corn syrup to a boil in a medium-large saucepan.
4. Remove from heat and add vanilla and peanut butter. Stir until blended.
5. Add Special K and stir.
6. Press into a 9"x9" pan (the larger the better – 9.25" is better than 8.5"). By "press," I do not mean gently pat – I mean take the back of a large spoon and bang away until there is no give left. You want to smash the mixture down until the top is a smooth expanse of sweet, crunchy, peanut-buttery goodness.
7. Pour melted chocolate over top.

(I find that if I pre-measure all the ingredients and set the stove to "Min" right at the beginning, the chocolate is just about ready to be blended with a spatula when I’m finished banging the cereal mixture with a spoon. If your stove is hotter than mine, though, you may find at this point that that the chocolate has burned into a poo-like lump. You may try stirring it, hoping that the stiffness means that it simply hasn’t melted yet, and when that hope fades, you may find yourself simmering with rage that can be released only by means of a fair amount of shrieking and banging of pots. Fortunately, that will probably only happen once – and after that you’ll learn to make up the cereal mixture first and melt the chocolate afterwards.)

8. Chill until the chocolate is hard. Serve cold. (This instruction is very important. While some people may think they are enjoying the Delight Squares after they’re been left out at room temperature for an hour, these people are simply revealing their tragic ignorance.)


Feel free to eat these for breakfast – after all, the primary ingredient is cereal, and the only fat sources are the chocolate and peanut-butter. The squares are high in protein and cover three out of the four food groups in the Canada Food Guide – perfect for snacking while you’re nursing a newborn baby.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Do You Believe in Magic?

I’ve written about my friend Felicia before. When she was getting married, her gift to her husband was a dark ebony chest, exquisitely carved with Japanese pagodas and bonsai trees. Before she gave it to him, though, she sawed off the pedestal-feet, which were carved in the shape of grinning gargoyles. She wasn’t worried that these faces would startle her each morning as she stumbled, bleary-eyed, into her living room. No – her concern was that the faces are where the demons get in.

Felicia is the kind of person who puts stock in getting a house blessed before the move-in date, just in case any demons are lingering from the previous owners. (When I moved into this house, we found buckets of toys in the basement; we didn’t check for any left-behind demons.) Such magical thinking can take a positive spin as well: when Bub was getting up several times each night, one of her friends recommended that we play an audio-tape of the Bible while he slept – because there is power in the Word of God.

I believe in the power of the Word of God – but I’m old-fashioned about it: I think you have to read it and understand it before that power begins to work. I even believe in demons, but in the C.S. Lewis sense: in his preface to The Screwtape Letters, he argues that "There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them."

Lewis’s demons are goal-oriented: they want us to feel smugly self-satisfied, to believe that our unexamined opinions are intellectually superior because they are fashionable. They want us to eat lunch, to complain about our neighbours, and to show off to our friends – anything to distract us from beauty, and pleasure, and a sense of the divine. His demons are remarkably uninterested in making us speak Latin or spin our heads around like owls. And they display no interest at all in our interior d├ęcor.

Magical thinking assumes that good and evil have very little to do with volition. It assumes that purity can be achieved by sequestering oneself from tainted objects: Ouija boards, playing cards, R-rated movies – as if evil would not follow us behind our barricades, crouching in our jealous talk, our petty hearts.

Dani’s post about The Secret has reminded me that magical thinking takes many forms, with the New Age version being only slightly less offensive to me than the Christian one. The Secret, for those of you who have been living under a rock, purveys the idea that the universe will send back to us whatever positive or negative energy we put into it: if we think positively, we can have anything we want; if we think negatively, it’s our own fault if we get cancer. After I finished barfing, I left a comment: "God is not a cosmic vending machine. And neither is the universe." (This is not a popular sentiment, apparently – one commenter warned that remarks like mine may prevent innocent bystanders from thinking positively.)

One place I don’t find magical thinking is in the Harry Potter books. Nomo posted today about a friend of hers who refuses to read the books because she doesn’t believe in magic. Fairy tales, The Secret Garden, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – almost the entire canon of children’s literature would be off-limits to such a person. I don’t know the grounds for her objection. Is it a failure of the imagination? – an inability to suspend disbelief long enough to enter into the fantasy? Or is it a moral objection, a resistance to a world view that locates salvation in spells and wands instead of science, faith, or hard work?


Despite all the furor in conservative circles, I find the Harry Potter series to be far less invested in magical thinking than the rhetoric of its opponents, who want the books banned from libraries for fear that unwary children will be contaminated. At Hogwarts, magic is really little more than a kind of window-dressing, a tool to be used like any other. It does not take the place of volition; it does not mean that events are controlled by cosmic forces that can be roused to anger or placated by those who know the secret password. When characters hesitate to say Voldemort’s name for fear of summoning his presence, Dumbledore sets them straight.

Evil is not innate in these books, and it does not spread like a contagion one can pick up accidentally from a piece of furniture or a children’s story. Goodness, conversely, is a choice (and often a risky one), not a catalogue from which you can order an unlimited supply of candy, or a spell you can cast by playing special tapes while you sleep.

I don’t believe in magic. But I believe in Harry Potter.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

I Need New Clothes. Or Something.

"You must be enjoying this weather!" one of my students greeted me this morning. It’s a cool, sunny day today – a relief from last week’s humidity – but I was taken aback by her emphasis.

I shrugged. "I can’t figure out what to wear from one day to the next. Yesterday I was too cold and today I’m too hot."

Maura looked concerned. "Is the heat bothering you yet?" she asked sympathetically. Yet? What did she mean by that? My uneasiness grew.

This was not our first conversation about the weather. Last week, I was complaining about the heat. Teaching is hot work at the best of times, and the air conditioning in my classroom is sub-par. Maura had actually switched seats to be nearer the window, so we were sharing our dissatisfaction with the sauna-like atmosphere. "This isn’t so bad," I said at one point. "Usually when I’m teaching this course, I’m pregnant."

We agreed that the only thing worse than teaching in a hot classroom in the summer is teaching in a hot classroom while pregnant. Maura has three children of her own, the two youngest of whom are the same age as my children, so she knows all about the lethal combination of hormones and high temperatures. "So how far along …" she began, and then changed tacks, "I guess you’ve got the whole summer to get through!" she exclaimed.

"I’ve got July and August off," I replied. "That’s better than last year, when I was teaching during the summer instead of the spring." I was concerned, at this point, that there may have been some misapprehension on her part, so I added, for clarity’s sake, "I definitely prefer it this way – teaching while not pregnant is really the way to go."

I came away from that conversation not entirely sure of what had just happened. Had Maura been about to ask me how far along I was? I couldn’t tell – but since that conversation, I’ve found myself thinking twice about the cookies I usually snack on in the afternoon. (That policy does not extend to the white chocolate raspberry dessert that was served at the barbecue on the weekend, or to the chocolate marble cake I ate at a wedding shower on Sunday. Cutting back here and there is one thing, but I draw the line at pastries topped with a thick layer of melted white chocolate.)

Cut to this morning. After inquiring so sympathetically about my reaction to the heat, Maura went on, "When I was pregnant, I couldn’t stand the hot weather!"

I blinked a couple of times, and considered my possible responses:

(a) Explain I’m not pregnant.
(b) Pretend to be about 12 weeks along so as to justify the liberal use I’m making this summer of my old maternity outfits.
(c) Blush furiously and mutter something about hating the cold.

Being a coward who’s unable to think fast on her feet, I went with (c).

The thing is, Maura is a warm, gregarious woman who likes to chat. She’s not going to let this go – before long she’ll be wanting to know my due date and major symptoms. She also sits at the back of the class, so it seems quite likely that sometime before the end of the week I’m going to have to clarify, in front of thirty other students, that her belief that I am pregnant is wholly mistaken. The only mystery, really, is which of the two of us will be more embarrassed.

Sigh. What do I do now?

*****

Edited to add: In fairness to Maura, here's what I was wearing today:


I believe, in retrospect, that the black sweater was an error in judgement.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Outdoor Girl

The thing is, I don’t actually like Nature very much.

I was notorious as a child for my Bee Dance, notorious also for having gone home in a huff when my best friend and a visitor decided to play in the back yard, overruling my strong preference for remaining indoors. It wasn’t just about the bees, though my phobia certainly played a role. The stuff I liked best was always inside the house. That was where you could read books, raid the kitchen for Oreos and Ding Dongs, talk about boys, and play Connect Four. Outside was where grown-ups made you go for ritual humiliations like gym class, or torture sessions like day-camp, with its ice-cold lakes full of algae, its fly-infested outhouses, and its terrifying ponies walking around in circles.

So, yeah. I kind of sucked at being a kid.

I always knew I wasn’t sporty girl, and for the most part I was okay with that. I would relax my anti-outdoor policy once a year in preparation for track-and-field day (where I always had a shot at a ribbon in the 100-metre dash), but otherwise I was content to cede the field of athletic endeavour to those able to do more than hide in the farthest corners of the outfield, hoping to stay well away from any errant balls. (Gym class for me was an excellent training for the field of espionage: it was all about laying low, attracting as little attention as possible, and staying far away from the ball.)

I did experience some cognitive dissonance, though, over my lack of appreciation for the beauties of nature. I had read Anne of Green Gables often enough to feel that I ought to be forming passionate relationships to the local pine trees and birch paths. Except for brief moments in early autumn, when my neighbourhood would explode into fiery splendour, nature seemed to resist my attempts at attachment. It was too ordinary. Symmetrical rows of freshly planted maple trees just could not sustain the imaginative investment I attempted to make in them. I did better with violets and trilliums, but still it was an effort.

My mother claims that my anti-outdoor attitude can be traced to earliest infancy. When I was a year old, she tried to put me outside to play, only to be summoned moments later by my cries. I was standing on the patio, sobbing, pointing down at the little potato bugs inching their tubular bodies across my path. Outside was the realm of flying insects and scary boys with genuine-looking toy pistols. I preferred to stay indoors doing math problems and reading Nancy Drew.

Maybe you can see where this is going. My preference for the indoor life is not exactly an asset when it comes to the task of raising children – especially these children of mine who adore the back yard, who eat sand and like it, who see the outdoors as an adventureland populated by friendly dogs, birds, and squirrels.

I have managed so far too conceal my phobia of bees. It helps that Bub has so little peripheral awareness. I can shriek and run in a circle and he will pay little or no attention if he is absorbed in the task of pulling leaves off a bush and dipping them in a mud puddle. Pie, on the other hand, will give me quizzical look. "Mama is being silly!" I announce in response to the unasked question in her eyes. It’s an unlikely explanation, but one she is willing, so far, to accept. Certainly she doesn’t yet associate these lapses of mine with the furry creatures she sees in books prompting joyous shrieks of "Bumblebee!"

I have spent more time outdoors since my children were born than in the previous two decades put together. It’s one of the hidden perks of the job, this discovery of heat and sand and prickly grass, the pleasures of a cold spring breeze or a sun-baked slide. There is still a sense of relief for me when I return indoors, a certain lightening of the pressure of the outdoor world. At a restaurant, I continue to opt for the dining room instead of the patio. But Nature, so long a closed book to me, is opening its leaves shyly these days under the gentle sun of these adventurous little ones. I’m beginning to see with their eager eyes, to feel with their fearless hearts.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

New Normal

We went to a barbecue last night. While the grown-ups ate steak with mesclun greens and drank from plastic cups of sparkling white wine, a herd of children roamed around eating hot dogs, playing on swings, and picking up great clumps of mown grass to throw at one another shouting, "It’s a Fiffer-feffer feff!" (Okay, that last one was just Bub.) It was a pleasant evening, cooling off from a hot, humid day, and the only drawback to the setting was the lack of fencing. Our hosts live in an old stone farmhouse set on a rural highway. The patio is well back from the road, so it was easy to ignore the occasional transport truck whizzing past. There was little to tempt the children in the direction of the highway – all the flowers and swing-sets and chip-bowls were located towards the back of the property. Nevertheless, I kept half an eye on each child as we ate and chatted. At any given time, I always knew exactly where my children were, monitoring the periphery of the yard while I conversed with the other grown-ups.

This divided attention is second nature to me now – it barely cost me an effort to maintain that level of alertness. Indeed, I find social situations more relaxing when the rigours of child-supervision limit the need for small-talk. This barbecue was hosted by the law office where hubby has been working since January, and the swarms of children shrieking and laughing, the need for parents to jump up every five minutes to prevent eyes from being poked out, made for a casual, comfortable atmosphere.

A man can get used to anything, they say, even being hanged. (At least, that’s what they say in L. M. Montgomery’s books, though I have no idea where the expression originated.) Likewise, a woman can get used to anything, even that state of perpetual alertness that accompanies motherhood. One of the biggest adjustments for me after Bub was born was the need to keep one ear cocked at all times, listening for signs of wakefulness. There were breaks when the baby slept, but they were never real breaks – they were states of stand-by, when I was always on-call, and the crushing part was the realization that I would never be off-duty again.

Every once in awhile I am wafted with a momentary memory of what it was like to have the weekend stretching out ahead of me as an uninterrupted block of leisure time during which I could go to the beach, lie down on a blanket and read a magazine. I remember what it was like to blast my way through a stack of essays between the hours of 8 pm and midnight, before the interrupted sleep of motherhood rendered me useless after sundown. These memories do not linger – they’re like a whiff of French fries when I walk past McDonald’s – they smell good but I know that they tempt me with an indulgence that isn’t good for my health, so I keep on walking. And once their aroma has fled, I marvel at how normal it feels, this new world where the threat level fluctuates from yellow to orange, and I simply go about my life accustomed to a need for vigilance that has become so routine I barely notice it anymore.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Talking About An Evolution

The BlogRhet meme is like a meme gone military. Instead of trickling through the blogosphere, meandering from one blog to another in the traditional manner of memes, or even exploding exponentially like the Thinking Blogger meme did a few months ago, it has been deployed from central headquarters and it’s blasting through entire swathes of the blogosphere, taking no prisoners.

And it has elicited some fascinating stories about the evolution of style. Lawyer Mama describes herself as comfortable enough now, after almost a year of blogging, to pull back some of the layers of herself, while Mad Hatter confesses to being just a little bit gun-shy – she’s become a more cautious blogger, careful not to give offence. Many others have talked about the evolution of blogging from a private online diary to a communal enterprise.

So it is with a sinking feeling that I turn to this meme, realizing that my experience of writing this blog has remained almost entirely static over the 50-odd weeks I’ve been doing it. I have always been a blurter, compelled to reveal way too much about myself even to audiences far less sympathetic than the momosphere, and to this day I’m still not especially good at covering my butt. I started this blog shortly after discovering Her Bad Mother and Sunshine Scribe (my first two commenters), and a quick glance at my archives will reveal that I established my habit of commenting-on-comments very early on, including a back-and-forth exchange with Marla during my first week of blogging in which she actually returned to respond to my comment on her comment. It’s always been about the back-and-forth for me (though I don’t think that means that I place less value on the writing aspect).

So instead of answering the interview questions one by one (because, as you know, I think I’m too good to do anything in the straightforward, usual way), I think I’ll answer them all at once.

The Evolution of a Blogger

Then: My posts served the purpose of staking out the territory of my blog. Blogger didn’t offer labels back then, but each post introduced a topic or theme I considered integral to what my blog would be: one post about the Pie, one about the Bub, one on mommy-politics, one embarrassing story from my teenage years. I probably overestimated how much I would have to say about the cultural politics of motherhood, but otherwise I was carving out a niche that I have occupied ever since.
Now: I continue to write about my children, my experience of motherhood, and my torturous high-school years, but I also throw in posts about bubbles, toast, my period, the seven deadly sins, Victorian fashions, and caramel apples. This is not exactly new territory for me, however. When I handed in a journaling assignment in grade seven, my teacher wrote that I had a tendency to focus excessively on trivia (a criticism I rebutted in my next entry, a passionate defence of trivia as the very stuff of life).

Then: My motive for blogging was to be read by the funny, articulate, dazzling women of the blogosphere.
Now: My motive for blogging is to be read by the funny, articulate, dazzling women of the blogosphere.

Then: Commenting functioned as currency. It was like free advertising space, right there at the end of every post. I could click my way through the blogosphere, scattering a trail of crumbs wherever I went, hoping that somebody would follow them back home to my blog. (And I put a lot of effort into those crumbs – they had to look all casual and crumbly-like, but really they were laced with as much chocolatey goodness as I could manage without looking like I was trying too hard.)
Now: Commenting functions as courtesy. This week I left a few comments at brand-new (to me) blogs, ones I had stumbled upon by picking up their temptingly chocolatey crumb-comments at Mom-NOS’s place. (I love her blog. Is it wrong, though, that every time I click over there I sing, "Come on, Mominos! Everybody let’s go!"?) It has been a long while since the last time I went out of my way to visit someone new. Usually these days, I visit my regulars, follow up on comments others leave here, and when I comment it is because there's something I want to say, some encouragement or support I want to offer.

Then: I signed up for SiteMeter (after realizing that’s how you find out about all the crazy Google searches), then struggled to limit the number of times I checked my blog throughout the day, hoping to reach a point where my own visits would constitute less than half the total daily traffic.
Now: I check my stats twice a day, no longer bothering to calculate how many of them are me. My traffic has risen steadily, with the biggest bumps coming after these two posts. (Both were about the dark side – of blogging as well as parenting – and don’t think that I haven’t been tempted to mine my life for whatever darkness I can dredge up, hoping to duplicate the formula.) My Technorati rating has plunged since the links to those posts have dropped off the radar, but I only pay attention to Technorati on a bad day. On a good day, the only stat that matters to me is the number of comments, because that’s the one that has least to do with my insecurity and most to do with the enjoyment of blogging.

Then: I passionately yearned for a Perfect Post award. It was the grown-up equivalent of getting the academic achievement plaque in grade eight (and unless you’re new around here, you know the insatiable greed I felt about that). When Mommy-off-the-Record awarded me one in only my second month of blogging, my glee considerably outstripped what I felt when, say, I defended my Ph.D. dissertation.
Now: I give myself stern talking-to’s about not caring about awards, remembering that I’ve already gotten my fair share, realizing it’s really all about community and not about winning … and then I am overcome with glee when I discover that Miscellaneous-Mum has nominated Good Audience/Bad Audience for this month’s awards. (And! – breaking news – Pundit Mom nominated me too, for my Biography of Period. That's proof, I think, that my grade-seven teacher was wrong about the value of trivia. Thanks, you guys!)

Then: I was aware of my potential audience but also defensive, fending off potential criticisms. In my first post, about weaning the Pie, I threw in a little back-off-haters disclaimer, "And yes," I wrote, after claiming that the Pie was weaning herself, "I know that Babies Under a Year Old Do Not Self-Wean, and all nursing problems can be solved with sufficient quantities of fenugreek/blessed thistle/gentian violet and the assistance of Dr. Jack Newman."
Now: I no longer expect to find the lactation police lurking in the bushes, ready to jump out at me if I don’t continue breastfeeding well into toddlerhood. My audience has changed from "them" to "you." It was a long time before I could end my posts with a question without a little thrill of panic. What if nobody answered? I trust my audience now to answer when I call, to accept my darkest confessions without judgment, and to give me a much-needed slap about the head when I mention my lax habits with regard to thank-you notes.

Then: My paragraphs were 15-20 lines long.
Now: My paragraphs are about ten lines long. Or shorter.

Then: I used words like schadenfreude, fenugreek, and preternatural.
Now: I use words like tautological, unconscionable, and extemporaneous, but also haters, meme, and asshat. (Actually, I don’t use the word asshat. But I like to talk about it anyway.) I don’t believe my style is influenced by my sense of audience, but it is undoubtedly influenced by the blogs I read, both in terms of the stylistic experimentation they encourage (the Monday missions, for example) and their jaunty casualness. Blogging has allowed me to recover from years of academic writing, to the point that I can add commas to compound predicates with impunity, use intentional sentence fragments with alarming frequency, and employ the words "you" and "your" to mean not only my readers but people in general. Do I owe you guys a thank-you for that, or an apology?

Now for the tags (feeling like It in a game where there are all-too-few players still on the field, and they’re fleeing madly): Jenifer, Sage, and Mary (Owlhaven). How has your blogging evolved? (For the real questions, check out the link to BlogRhet at the top. Otherwise, feel free to make it up as you go along. That’s what I did.)